This is J.K. Rowling’s second pseudonymous book in a crime series featuring London private investigator Cormoran Strike and his dewy-eyed eager assistant Robin Ellacott.
Strike is an ex-military policeman who lost a foot in Afghanistan, and is now just turning 36 in this story that begins eight months after the conclusion of the first book in the series, Cuckoo’s Calling.
Strike craves anonymity, much as he had in the army’s Special Investigation Branch, where your background and parentage didn’t matter as much as how well you did your job. But he is one of the illegitimate children of the rock star Jonny Rokeby, and when people find this out they tend to form an opinion of Strike as “no more than a famous singer’s zygote, the incidental evidence of a celebrity’s unfaithful fumble.” Strike has actually only met his biological father once, but he does know his half-siblings, and one of them, Al, helps Strike out in his latest case. In the process, Strike is amazed to discover that Al, Jonny Rokeby’s legitimate son and living a much more charmed life than Strike ever had, is envious of Strike, who has a purposefulness and usefulness that Al never has felt.
This case involves the murder of novelist Owen Quine. Strike had been hired by Owen’s wife Leonora to find Owen after he went missing. Strike does locate Quine, but what he finds is his body, in a very horrifying scene that not so coincidentally replicates a murder from Quine’s last as yet unpublished book, “Bombyx Mori,” Latin for “The Silkworm.” The silkworm, Quine once said, was a metaphor for the writer “who has to go through agonies to get at the good stuff….” Leonora immediately comes under suspicion but Strike is convinced she is innocent, and proceeds, with the help of the intrepid Robin, to prove it.
Discussion: Rowling’s writing is impressive as usual. As the story begins, for example, Strike heads out in the cold for an early morning meeting, and observes
“…a huddle of couriers in fluorescent jackets cupped mugs of tea in their gloved hands beneath a stone griffin standing sentient on the corner of the market building.”
What a nicely-done sentence. The couriers aren’t huddling; they are “a huddle of couriers.” The image of the cold is boosted by the fact that they clasp their tea mugs with “gloved hands.” And the alliterative “stone griffin standing sentient” adds a subtle rhythmic appeal to the description.
Strike then proceeds on to the Smithfield Cafe, “a cupboard-sized cache of warmth and greasy food.” Again the alliteration cleverly draws attention to the aptness of her phrasing, as we can picture exactly just what sort of place would have both warmth and greasy food.
Rowling pays obeisance to the common tropes of the genre – from noir elements, to Strike’s careful methodical examination of the facts, to having Strike bring all the suspects together in a Christie-like manner to facilitate the unmasking of the killer. But she does not employ the spare prose of the noir writer, exploring the philosophical issues raised by the murder and the suspects as well as just taking us through the solving of the crime.
The object of Strike’s investigation being a novelist affords many opportunities for commentary on the writing and publishing business, which I found a bit distracting. It’s hard to tell whether these are “meta” observations of J.K. Rowling or if they should be considered simply as revelatory of the personalities under suspicion. I was much more taken by the many astute observations made about the nature of love and relationships. One of the authors under investigation, Michael Fancourt, muses to Strike:
“We don’t love each other; we love the idea we have of each other. Very few humans understand this or can bear to contemplate it.”
Later she has Strike rehearsing his relationship with his abusive former fiancée Charlotte, wondering if it fits the parameters of Fancourt’s paradigm:
“Perhaps he had created a Charlotte in her own image who had never existed outside his own besotted mind, but what of it? He had loved the real Charlotte too, the woman who had stripped herself bare in front of him, demanding whether he could still love her if she did this, if she confessed to this, if she treated him like this….”
We can believe that Strike loved Charlotte for herself. Her cruel behavior to him serves to illuminate Strike’s steadfastness. In fact, many of the characters act as daubs from a pallet to fill in the portrait of Strike. Strike’s willingness to take on the impoverished Leonora Quine as a client, for example, places into relief his character as a champion of the downtrodden, as well as his disgust and impatience with his usual client pool of “the mistrustful, endlessly betrayed rich.”
Fancourt had also expressed to Strike his belief that men are primarily driven by the need/desire for sex; if a man tells himself a particular woman is “more fascinating, more attuned to my needs and desires, than another,” he is just revealing that he is ‘a complex, highly evolved and imaginative creature who feels compelled to justify a choice made on the crudest grounds.’”
Later in the story, Strike seems to substantiate Fancourt’s theory when he thinks about his sister asking him why he stayed with Charlotte:
“‘Why do you put up with it? Why? Just because she’s beautiful?
And he had answered: ‘It helps.’
She had expected him to say ‘no,’ of course. Though they spent so much time trying to make themselves beautiful, you were not supposed to admit to women that beauty mattered.”
What an excellent observation.
Evaluation: J.K. Rowling is a masterful storyteller no matter what name she uses. I very much look forward to more installments of this crime series.
Published by Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a member of Hachette Book Group, 2014